Few would deny that the recent horrors in Brussels demand action, beginning, certainly, with a thoroughgoing purge of Belgian security and intelligence agencies. Other proposed remedies are shambolic, meaningless, or simply farcical, such as the idea of police patrolling “Muslim areas” in the U.S. (Which areas? Where? With what goal?) I would suggest, though, that one urgent priority is for the U.S. and its European allies to consider immediate political and diplomatic recognition of the Islamic State. Let me explain the grounds for that proposal.
European societies are legendarily open, and most have a strong reluctance to anything that might look like curbing dissent. That willingness to tolerate virtually any opposition to government is vastly enhanced by the commitment to multiculturalism, and the perceived need to avoid persecuting or targeting ethnic and religious minorities. Only that tradition can explain the utterly perplexing comments that regularly appear in media reports of Islamist activities in Europe, especially after major terror attacks. We read that a certain area in Sweden or England or Germany is a notorious trouble spot, with so many local men having traveled to Syria and returned. Elsewhere, we hear that intelligence agencies are stretched to the limit in keeping track of militants. In Britain, for instance, the security services report the hard work of keeping tables on a couple of thousand known jihadis. After an attack, media usually report that the X brothers were “known to the police” as likely militants.
Let me ask the questions that seem obvious to me, but which apparently elude European agencies. Firstly, and most obvious, the category of jihadi is quite distinct from that of political dissenter, or critic of the regime, or radical reformer. Of its nature, it implies being willing and eager to engage in armed violence against democratic regimes, and also the preaching and advocacy of such activities. Given the present terrorist threat in Europe, support or advocacy for such views constitutes a clear and present danger to peace, safety, and public order. It therefore involves conduct that in the Anglo-American legal tradition clearly comes within the ambit of the criminal code, under such labels as sedition and incitement to kill. I am not an expert on Roman Law traditions, but I assume those countries have comparable notions of criminal behavior, of the advocacy of violence falling short of the deed itself.
Why are European governments not enforcing these laws? Why do they not go beyond proscribing organizations to prosecuting and punishing each and every individual member or office holder? Why are there no mass sedition trials? If direct criminal prosecutions are difficult, why can suspects not be interned for the duration of the emergency? Why, in short, are “known jihadi sympathizers” walking the streets?
Leading on from that, if a person has traveled from a European nation to Syria or Iraq in the past four or five years, the presumption is surely that they did so with a willingness to support the activities of the same terror group that has been active on European soil, namely the Islamic State, the Daesh. This places them in the category of jihadi, with the sanctions outlined above. Why are they ever, under any circumstances, allowed re-entry into Europe? Indeed, let us encourage their travels to the Middle East, where they can form a concentrated target for attack and annihilation by multiple nations. But return? Never.
Please understand, I am not naïve about the workings of intelligence, and I realize there are excellent reasons for allowing real or apparent terror suspects to wander loose. I once debated a conservative writer who was appalled that the British allowed a certain blowhard imam to remain free and active in London. My argument was that intelligence services often allow such figures much liberty precisely because they are double agents or informants, and they must be seen to be active in radical movements as a means of facilitating surveillance and penetration of terror organizations. My fear, though, is that the enormous latitude allowed to European jihadis does not, generally, result from such familiar tradecraft. European governments are simply too confused or gutless to round them up and jail them.
All of which brings me to recognizing the Islamic State. Presently, the Daesh is viewed as a dangerous terrorist group, membership in which constitutes illegal behavior in Western nations. But suppose that it was recognized internationally as a state, and its sympathizers and agents continued to advocate or practice violence against Western governments. In that case, they would be advocating or committing acts of irregular warfare, which would constitute treason. That would be all the easier if Western states formally declared war against the Islamic State.
The potential of treason charges would really, seriously, force Islamist thinkers to think very hard about the nature of their propaganda and activism. That redefinition would also make it vastly easier to frame and press charges, and to inflict maximum criminal penalties.
The people who would be happiest with such a development would be the leaders of most European mosques and Islamic organizations, who get very tired of banging their heads against the obstructive attitudes of police agencies. When sane, moderate, imams denounce the troublemakers in their midst, they would like nothing better than to get those fanatics put away for a great many years.
So, please, let’s recognize the Islamic State, and force its supporters and adherents to come to terms with the implications of advocating violence on the part of an enemy nation. Let them become traitors and saboteurs, and suffer accordingly.
I do ask one final question. Both Western powers and Russia are commendably anxious to avoid targeting civilian populations with tactics like carpet-bombing Mosul or Raqqa. Fair enough, and hence the countless pinpricks of drone attacks. But why on earth do those cities, and other Daesh strongholds, still have the slightest access to power, water, sewage disposal and desalination, and every other facility that permits the continuation of normal civilized existence? Cutting off those pleasant advantages would force an immediate and irreversible crisis within Daesh territories, pushing those already unhappy with the regime into immediate revolt. I am sure the states allegedly pledged to smashing the Islamic State have good reasons for not striking at such obvious targets, but offhand, I can’t think of any.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.